Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bentham, James

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BENTHAM, JAMES (1708–1794), historian of Ely, came of a clerical family in Yorkshire, which had produced an uninterrupted succession of clergymen from the time of Queen Elizabeth. He was the fourth son of the Rev. Samuel Bentham, vicar of Witchford near Ely, and brother of Edward Bentham [q. v.], professor at Oxford. Having acquired the rudiments of learning in Ely grammar school, he was admitted 26 March 1727 to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he proceeded B.A. in 1730, and M.A. in 1738. Five years previously — in 1733 — he had been presented to the vicarage of Stapleford in Cambridgeshire, which he resigned in 1737, when he was made a minor canon of Ely. In this office he exerted himself to improve the choral service of the church. The practical bent of his mind and his public spirit were shown in his various endeavours to improve the fen country, then in a very deplorable condition (see Hist. of Ely, p. 212).

He published in 1757 proposals for making turnpike roads under the title of 'Queries for the consideration of the Inhabitants of the City of Ely and Towns adjacent.' His plan, after encountering ridicule and obloquy for five years or more, was carried into effect under powers obtained by an act of parliament passed in 1763, and by the aid of subscriptions and loans of money. A road was made between Ely and Cambridge, and the system was extended to other parts of the isle of Ely.

Some twenty years after the appearance of his 'Queries' Bentham published 'Considerations and Reflections upon the Present State of the Fens,' with a view to their improvement by draining and enclosing Grunty Fen, a large tract of common near Ely, containing 1,300 acres.

The great literary achievement of Bentham was begun in 1766, when he circulated among his friends printed lists of the abbots, bishops, priors, and deans of Ely, for the purpose of obtaining materials for his history of the cathedral church. Five years later he sent out proposals for publishing this elaborate work at the remarkably low price of eighteen shillings, which he found himself obliged, however, soon after to raise to one guinea. Though the cost of the plates was defrayed by the several persons to whom they were dedicated, this was perhaps one of the cheapest books ever published in England. The work was sent to the press in 1704, and was delivered to the subscribers in 1771. It was printed at Cambridge in a quarto volume by Joseph Bentham, a brother of the historian, and alderman of Cambridge, who for many years was printer to the university. It was the last work that Joseph jirinted, a fact attested by these words on the last page of the book, 'Finis hic officii atque labris.' Bentham survived both this brother and his elder brother, Mr. Edward Bentham, regius professor of divinity at Oxford. In the introduction to the history an interesting and valuable account is given of Saxon, Norman, and Gothic architecture (see Quarterly Review, v. 2, 1809, pp. 126-145), which, by some strange mistake, was attributed by one S. E. to the pen of the poet Gray (see Gent. Mag. May 1783, p. 370). A letter vindicating Bentham's own claim to the essay appeared in the same journal, signed by the venerable author, in the following April, and produced a handsome apology from S. E., which was published in the July number of 1784 (p. 505). Notwithstanding this rectification the writer of the article 'Gothic Architecture' in Rees's 'New Cyclopedia' (1811) repeats the assertion that 'the poet Gray drew up the architectural part of the work.'

In 1767 Bentham was presented by Bishop Mawson to the vicarage of Wymondham in Norfolk, and upon his resignation of that living in the following year to the rectory of Feltwell St. Nicholas in the same county. This preferment he held till 1774, when Bishop Keene presented him to the rectory of Northwold, which, after five years' tenure, he was induced to give up for a prebendal stall in Ely Cathedral. The same prebend had some fifty years before been held by Bishop Tanner, the noted writer on ecclesiastical antiquities. To this was added in 1783, on the presentation of the Rev. Edward Guellaume, the rectory of Bowbrick Hill, Buckinghamshire. During the later period of his life he collected, with great pains, materials for illustrating the 'Ancient Architecture of this Kingdom,' a work which he was unable to complete.

He gained the respect of those who knew him, not only by his talents and pursuits, but by his modest and unassuming manners. He died at his prebendal house, Ely, on 17 Nov. 1794, at the age of eighty-six. He was twice married, and his second wife, Miss Mary Dickens of Ely, bore him a son and a daughter. The former survived his father, and became vicar of West Bradenham in Norfolk. He also published at Norwich a second edition of the 'History of Ely Cathedral,' with a memoir of his father prefixed, 2 vols. 4to, 1812-17. A large quarto supplement to the first edition was published by W. Stevenson at Norwich in 1817, as well as a supplement to the second edition of the same size and date. Cole's notes on Bentham's important work will be found in Davis's 'Olio.'

[Memoir in second edition of History of Ely; Nichols's Anecdotes, iii. 484-94; Gent. Mag. 1783-84-94.]

R. H.